Journey to the Summer Palace
Even in the smog, the lake is undeniably beautiful. Nearby the vendors offer bags of freshly grilled corn on the cob and skewers of candied Chinese hawthorns. I am observing the frozen waters from the Pavilion of Heralding Spring, where the weeping willows are the first to bud and the ice already broken.
China has always had a penchant for extraordinary feats of engineering: the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and a two thousand year old irrigation system in Sichuan. Although on a somewhat smaller scale, Kunming Lake appears to be no different. Covering 2.2 square kilometres, it was carved out of the landscape by a team of almost 10,000 labourers, who piled the soil on its northern shore to create Longevity Hill.
I remember the Summer Palace as a tranquil, idyllic place, but at the Long Corridor those memories are brutally shattered. Beneath the panels of painted legends, I am squeezed between two groups of package tourists, their members followed by the incessant calls of touts peddling fake Rolexes and overpriced knickknacks. Just as the corridor begins to turn, I step out of the claustrophobic madness and breathe a sigh of relief.
The journey, not the destination.
On the east side of the old city an escalator hums the tune of Beijing’s frenzied dash into the 21st century. It’s nearing twelve noon and I am at the northeastern exit of Dongsi Station, meeting the close friend of a local contact. Outside a lone man on the phone stands waiting by a featureless grey wall. I breeze up to him, albeit a little unsure. “Are you Mr. Wang?”
He nods his head and smiles. Mr. Wang is a lao beijingren, an “Old Beijinger” born and raised in the city. As we cross a pedestrian overpass he begins by filling me in on some local history. Once upon a time four ceremonial gateways – or pailou – marked the area’s main intersection. But in the 1950s these gateways were torn down, following the example of the ancient Ming Dynasty city walls. Today countless places across central Beijing are named for landmarks that are no longer there – Dongsi, literally “Eastern four”, is just one of them.
“I’ll take you to the kind of place that only Beijing people go.” We pass a wonton joint and another local restaurant, neither one filled up with lunch-goers. The latter, Mr. Wang points out, has been here for over a hundred years.
A few steps away an open storefront beckons with the aroma of freshly-cooked noodles. Through a glass door we duck into an ageing food court, dimly lit by the fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling. Mr. Wang has brought me here for a meal of Beijing xiaochi, small snacks and dishes that are an integral part of the city’s culinary fabric.
When my eyes adjust to the darkness I immediately notice the wizened faces of the clientele. Along one wall the counters are piled high with all sorts of pastries, and above them rows of characters give an exhaustive list of their names and prices.
“These are specialties of the Hui people.”
The Hui are a Muslim ethnic minority from the northwest, who after centuries of migration, have exerted a powerful influence on Beijing’s local cuisine. Mr. Wang picks out a selection of sweet pastries, among them the thickly-skinned ai wowo, a bun stuffed with pellets of white sugar. There’s a sticky roll filled with sesame paste, and a generous slab of tasteless yellow bean pudding.
Mr. Wang is keen to introduce me to as many dishes as possible, and we share two bowls of sour soy milk and several youtiao – deep-fried dough – formed in the shape of onion rings. I break off half a youtiao and dip it into my wheat porridge, or miancha, its contents slathered with a thick layer of delicious sesame sauce.
“Do you want to try some jian bing?” He asks me. “Yes, of course.” I have no idea what that is. Mr. Wang disappears for a while, leaving me with my miancha and the unfinished yellow bean pudding. When he returns, it is with a steaming pair of large folded dumplings, each one liberally coated in scrambled egg. I take one mouthful and am instantly in heaven. Stuffed with tofu skins, bean sprouts and tender slices of meat, it is the perfect xiaochi for Beijing’s harsh winters.
Back on the metro Mr. Wang is gesturing for me to exit the train. We are still one stop away from the Summer Palace but he has suddenly decided on an alternate route. “We’ll stop at my house for tea.”
Once outside the dry, dusty air leaves me desperately thirsting for water. I can feel the pollution itching and clumping in my throat, and I realise why it is that people here have the urge to spit in public.
Mr. Wang lives in a four-storey housing estate, kept low-rise so as not to disturb the ambience of the Summer Palace. He walks in and stamps on the ground. In a typical Beijing apartment complex, the sensor for the common area lights is buried somewhere beneath the concrete. He’s apologetic as we reach the door of his ground floor apartment. “We’re moving in a couple of weeks so it’s a bit of a mess.”
The door swings open and I am drawn into the toasty warmth of his home. In the middle of the living room Mr. Wang points out his collection of potted plants. “I keep them here to give the air some humidity,” he adds. “Winters in Beijing are just too dry.” There are a few cactuses and a stand of narcissus left over from Chinese New Year. As he disappears to the kitchen, I give the flowers a quick sniff. The fragrance reminds me of my childhood days.
Mr. Wang has an elaborate tea set, centred on a clay platter coloured a beautiful deep brown hue. Among other items, a frog and a smiling Buddha take up two corners of the platter. “Do you prepare tea like this in Hong Kong?” he asks. I shake my head. “No, not with this many steps.” With the care of a temple priest, Mr. Wang pours the first jug over the smiling Buddha and brushes the runoff into a collector. He refills the teapot, resting it upside down over a porcelain cup before serving.
I haven’t had tea like this in the longest time. When I inquire about the kind he uses, Mr. Wang holds up a large red packet of tea leaves. “This is Oolong – the kind we call “Iron Goddess”. It usually costs about 700 to 800 renminbi.” I gape, realising the price of his hospitality, but he is quick to laugh it off. “Well, it’s an expensive hobby.”
On his smart phone Mr. Wang shows me pictures of the Summer Palace draped in snow. I am spellbound by the sheer beauty jumping out from every frame. “This was in November… we haven’t had any major snowfalls since then.” I scroll to a collection of summer sunsets, marvelling at the clouds bursting with vibrant colours over Kunming Lake. Although he is moving to the far side of Beijing, Mr. Wang remains clear about his eventual plan to return. The Summer Palace, after all, is his beloved neighbourhood park.
Mr. Wang sips on another oolong and gets to his feet.
“Come, we should go before it’s too late.”